Willie Geist presents ‘Chalk Talk’, celebrating Ridgewood’s title in 1991


Recent memories suggest that Ridgewood’s football program is an eternal competitor, but it hasn’t always been so. It was not until the arrival of Chuck Johnson that the program was a lasting success.

Now the Maroons should be in the thick of the playoffs. But in 1991, that was not the case. In fact, that 1991 season wasn’t meant to be the championship season it turned out to be. It was the start of brown magic.

On Saturday afternoon, GroupSpot, a digital communications company owned by Mark Kossick (’92), a member of that 1991 team, presented a “Chalk Talk” session as part of Ridgewood’s Homecoming weekend. Willie Geist (1993), a junior on that team and current presenter of Sunday Today with Willie Geist, and co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, moderated the event.

Willie Geist and his high school sweetheart became wife, Christina Sharkey (now Geist), in the fall of 1992.

Ridgewood head coach Chuck Johnson and Ramapo head coach Drew Gibbs, who was the offensive coordinator of that Ridgewood team in 1991, were the guests. A number of players from this 1991 squad were also present.


Johnson arrived at his alma mater in 1984 and immediately racked up three 9-game seasons and three playoff trips. Then came a four-year period without a playoff appearance, including a 1990 season in which the Maroons got off to a 4-1 start before shutout losses to Montclair and St. Joseph put them on the outside. looking for the playoffs. In fact, the four losses that year were shutout.

This was Gibbs’ first year returning to the Maroons, having served as an assistant in 1984 and 1985 with Johnson before spending six years in the varsity ranks between Kean and Montclair State.

The 1991 season had a similar start, with Ridgewood going 6-0 before back-to-back losses to St. Joseph and Kennedy by five points were followed by a 47-7 at Bergen Catholic.

It was still good enough to bring the Maroons to the playoffs, and they faced Eastside at home in the semifinals, winning 6-0. The only touchdown in the game was a pass from quarterback Dan Burns to Geist wide open in the left side of the end zone.

The championship game was against North Bergen and the Maroons won by a score of 26-15 to win that elusive first state championship.

Open the way

Ramapo coach Drew Gibbs (left) and Ridgewood coach Chuck Johnson.  Gibbs was on Ridgewood's coaching staff in 1991 with Johnson.

Johnson was the head coach and longtime high school friend and classmate Jim Stroker was the defensive coordinator. They were considered the “oldies” (at 40), but there were a few young people who players considered more “uncles or big brothers”.

One of them was Gibbs, and there was another young stallion who worked with wide receivers and defensive backs who would become a very influential mentor in North Jersey sports.

Jim Grasso, before becoming sporting director at Paramus, Demarest and Ramsey and having influenced the creation of the Big North Conference (the predecessor of the Super Football Conference as we know it today), he was a football coach.

His role in the 1991 championship season was recognized not only by Johnson and Gibbs, but by Geist and Kossick and the rest of the players. They were able to closely observe Jim Grasso, the fire and the brimstone, as well as Jim Grasso, benevolent and mentor.

“He took care of us, he was tough on us, but he always looked out for us,” Geist said.

They presented his widow, Laura, with a photo from this season, with everyone signing the frame, and Laura made an extremely poignant statement that simply defines what the Grasso family is.

“He was always talking about this 1991 team. When he was sick, you all came. And that’s why you won this state championship. You all came. You will all always be part of the Grasso family, ”she said.

What was so special?

Willie Geist shows off his Ridgewood varsity jacket.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been as sentimental about the end of a season as I was that year,” Johnson said. “We had so much fun.”

“I always tried to find out if they won because they were so close (united), or if they were close because they won,” Gibbs said. “I finally realized that these two things go hand in hand.”

“There weren’t any real stars,” Burns said, “and everyone had to contribute. We had our fathers (in reference to Johnson and Stroker) and we had our uncles (Gibbs, Grasso, et al) and we just rallied around each other.

Cool quotes

Ridgewood football coach Chuck Johnson with former player Willie Geist.

“When I came back in 1990, Chuck said to me, I give you the offense. We got shut out four times, we couldn’t score. If we didn’t do it in 1991, friends or not, I know he’s firing me, then thanks to you, you saved my job. – Gibbs

“What people don’t know is that on the Eastside game day I was going through what I call ‘the flu in bed’. I was sick. I called the coach and him. said I didn’t know if I would be able to play and that I didn’t want to go out there and hurt the team. Coach Johnson’s response: “You are going to regret it for the rest of your life.” Like he would have been right. Geist

“One is the godfather of Wing-T, the other is the master of spread”, – Kossick over Johnson and Gibbs, respectively

“I remember one day in training we were running at full speed when someone approached the (practice) field and told the coach that his son Greg, who was playing on a field adjacent, is injured. Coach takes off in a full sprint. Greg was fine, and after a few minutes he was back, but that moment still resonates with me. Football is football but there is nothing more important than being a parent and at that point it taught me a lesson for the rest of my life. – Geist

“I was a tight catcher, which meant I didn’t like blocking.” – Geist

“Much of what we do at Ramapo today is modeled after what we did at Ridgewood. Chuck taught me the coaching profession, attention to detail, precision in match training. – Gibbs

“This man had reinvented himself several times. Like me, he was a Wing-T guy, but in Ramapo he changed his philosophy to spread, then took spread and recreated it into one of today’s most prolific offenses. . – Johnson on Gibbs

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